By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that once defined the urban fabric.
When the credits rolled for Aviva Kempner’s recent released documentary on Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the audience clapped for a man previously little known to them. That would not have been the case had the film been released locally, for the name Rosenwald is generally known to residents of the Kenwood community. Long after they moved from the mansion at the corner of Ellis and 49th Streets – affectionately labeled by the Rosenwald children as the old pickle factory – the property played a pivotal role in preserving the neighborhood for future generations.
A spectacularly successful merchandiser, Julius Rosenwald began his career at the age of sixteen when he travelled to New York to work as an apprentice in the family clothing business. In 1884 he opened his own operation, and sensing promise of a large market in the Midwest, Rosenwald and his younger brother Morris came to Chicago. Their cousin Julius Weil joined them in an enterprise known as Rosenwald & Weil Clothiers. The business was one of the first to offer men’s lightweight summer suits in standardized sizes, and became a principal supplier of men’s clothing for Sears Roebuck & Company.
It was a fairly profitable business, but destiny changed just over a decade later when Rosenwald’s brother-in-law was offered a half interest in Sears’ company. When presented with an opportunity to purchase a portion, Rosenwald felt an investment of $37,500 for a quarter interest was a good idea. In the world of understatements, that was one. He went on to become president of that company, presiding over a period of tremendous growth with the development of a substantial mail-order business. In 1906 Rosenwald took the company public, becoming a millionaire overnight. The son of an immigrant peddler and a man who never graduated high school, made a fortune as the head of a business that was known across the country because of his vision and leadership.
That leadership extended to philanthropy when, in 1917, the Rosenwald Foundation was established to make “investments in a more equitable society.” Influenced by his rabbi, his foundation initially supported Jewish causes but then broadened to strive for meaningful social change for African-Americans across the country. The power of his philanthropy was greatly increased by donating seed money, and encouraging investment from other stakeholders. Operating under that philosophy, nearly $600,000?was given to build YMCA and YWCA facilities that would accept blacks as residents.
To understand the breadth of his vision, it is important to remember that legal segregation was the law of the land during the Rosenwald era. After meeting Booker T. Washington, he came to believe that education would have the greatest effect on equalizing opportunities for African-Americans. To that end, the foundation allocated $4 million for the construction of nearly 5,000 public schools in the rural south.
Locally, he was a generous supporter of the university, both in buildings and faculty. The foundation provided funds when the board hesitated to accept Dr. W. Allison Davis because of the color of his skin. Though well qualified for the position, University President Maynard Hutchins felt it would be less disruptive if social anthropologist came to the university with the financial backing of the Rosenwald Foundation. In 1941 Davis became the first tenured African-American professor at a major research institution in the country.
Rosenwald’s projects included financing moderate-income housing projects. The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments at 47th Street and South Michigan Avenue was designed in 1929 by his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr. Rosenwald’s goal was to provide decent affordable housing to working-class black families restricted to living in the Washington Park and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods.
The Museum of Science and Industry owes its existence to Rosenwald’s generosity. Impressed with the Deutches Museum in Munich Germany, he negotiated the concept of a museum that would focus on science, engineering and industry. Renovation of the last structure left from the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition began in 1929, and the Museum of Science and Industry opened 4 years later.
If Julius Rosenwald is not well known to movie go-ers today that may be for two reasons. First was his anathema to the trend of “naming” so common today. Before construction on the Museum of Science and Industry even began there was disagreement over what the institution should be called. The museum was incorporated as the Rosenwald Industrial Museum, although it was well known Rosenwald was not in favor of such a title. In 1928 a compromise was reached, whereby the name would be the Museum of Science and Industry, however the institution could add “Founded by Julius Rosenwald” in its print materials. Nonetheless, many Chicagoans and most Hyde Parkers called it the Rosenwald for decades. How ironic that Rosenwald hesitated to achieve recognition through the use of his name, yet today the Sears Tower is known as Willis Tower.
The second reason Rosenwald may not be generally remembered is because he believed foundations should not go on forever. His fund closed in 1948, just 16 years after his death. Yet Rosenwald was a philanthropist on a colossal scale – he gave away what has been estimated to be nearly a billion dollars in today’s money. Thirty years after the last dollar was donated, Rosenwald left another legacy – one that played a critical role in the landmarking of the Kenwood community.
George C. Nimmons and William K. Fellows were the architects of many of Sears & Roebuck’s buildings. They met while both were employed for the famed partnership of Burnham & Root, and went into business for themselves in 1897. Nimmons & Fellows received mainly industrial commissions, and were chiefly concerned with structural and utilitarian problems. One of their first large projects was a store for Sears Roebuck & Company, and following its successful completion they became the architects for many other Sears facilities constructed during the early 1900s.
Rosenwald was undoubtedly pleased with their work, for in 1903 they were commissioned to design an immense residence in Kenwood. Constructed on 1.7 acres of land, the twenty-two-room Prairie-style house included an incredible 13,000 square feet of living space. Characterized by the strong horizontal lines and taupe-colored roman brick, the Spartan exterior displayed little ornamentation except for the delicate Sullivan-inspired terra-cotta under the eave line.
When Rosenwald moved to Highland Park selling the Kenwood property proved difficult given the effects of the Depression. The property was donated to the Rosenwald Fund for use as their offices for years. In the decades that followed his death in 1932, Kenwood watched dramatic changes unfolded in and around the community. Restrictive housing covenants so prevalent during the Rosenwald era were struck down in the late forties, and demographics quickly shifted. The combined effects of a Depression and two world wars took their toll on the housing stock as blight spread. The massive Urban Renewal Program cleared away 20 percent of Hyde Park, affecting the boundaries of the Kenwood neighborhood with targeted demolition of houses within.
As historic houses began to tumble in that process, preservationists moved to save some of the Chicago treasures that had fallen into disrepair. That effort included the Rosenwald mansion, when in 1977 a local developer acquired the property. The mansion still featured all the splendors of an earlier era, including seven fireplaces, a solarium, and a wood-paneled library. However the structure had been vacant for years and was rundown and riddled with building code violations. Development plans included subdividing the house into three luxury condominiums, turning the coach house into a single-family residence, and building residences in the large back yard.
The plan required approval for a zoning change from Chicago’s Planning Commission. Without that approval it was deemed economically unfeasible to move forward unless 8 to 12 town houses could be built in the spacious backyard. The commission approved this plan but when the City Council did not, the historic structures were threatened with demolition. In spite of a series of stormy meetings, the city approved demolition of the house in October of 1978.
This all attracted significant neighborhood opposition and galvanized a local movement against the required zoning change and possible demolition. The Kenwood Open House Committee fought long and hard to prevent both, while others found the conversion plan somewhat palatable if it meant saving the immense house. The April 1979 Tribune wrote unless they could find “an arab sheik, there’s no one who could afford that home.” To further complicate matters the majority of South Kenwood had been approved for historic status, with City Council approval pending but expected.
The neighborhood won this long zoning battle, saving the historic residence as a single-family house and marking the beginning of a new era for Kenwood with landmark designation for the entire community. The area bounded by 48th Street south to 51st and from Drexel Boulevard east to Blackstone Avenue was designated a Landmark District on June 29, 1979. That decision preserved the area for future generations; however in the time it took, a number of structures were lost and an equal number of unremarkable structures constructed.
Perhaps the most pointed moment in Kempner’s film is a newsreel clip of Rosenwald speaking. “Don’t believe because a man is rich he is necessarily smart,” the philanthropist commented. “There is ample evidence to the contrary.” While said well before the threatened demolition of this and other such historic residences, his comments resonate today.
Leon Despres, who was the 5th ward alderman from 1955 – 1975, had long argued for preservation, believing that while not every old building should be preserved, it was necessary to preserve creatively and constructively. He thought protecting historic urban areas required making some sacrifices, yet was a sign of a society’s cultural maturity. And the American Institute of Architects summed the issue up succinctly: “All we need is a sense of greatness and a willingness to elevate the common good above someone’s hopes to make a buck.”
And those beliefs have long paid off. Today it is possible not only to view the mansion of the generous Julius Rosenwald, but also to connect him to an earlier point in his life. His partners in Rosenwald & Weil lived nearby – Morris Rosenwald commissioned Howard van Doren Shaw to design the elaborate house at 4924 Woodlawn Ave., while Julius Weil chose Alfred Alschuler as his architect. The northern property line of his red brick house at 4921 S. Ellis Ave. looks onto Rosenwald’s lush green yard and not a series of townhouses – a wonderful legacy for an old pickle factory.